Robert Darnton weighs in on the ramifications of the recent Google settlement in the NYRB:

Libraries exist to promote a public good: “the encouragement of learning,” learning “Free To All.” Businesses exist in order to make money for their shareholders—and a good thing, too, for the public good depends on a profitable economy. Yet if we permit the commercialization of the content of our libraries, there is no getting around a fundamental contradiction. To digitize collections and sell the product in ways that fail to guarantee wide access would be to repeat the mistake that was made when publishers exploited the market for scholarly journals, but on a much greater scale, for it would turn the Internet into an instrument for privatizing knowledge that belongs in the public sphere. No invisible hand would intervene to correct the imbalance between the private and the public welfare. Only the public can do that, but who speaks for the public? Not the legislators of the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.

You cannot legislate Enlightenment, but you can set rules of the game to protect the public interest. Libraries represent the public good. They are not businesses, but they must cover their costs. They need a business plan. Think of the old motto of Con Edison when it had to tear up New York’s streets in order to get at the infrastructure beneath them: “Dig we must.” Libraries say, “Digitize we must.” But not on any terms. We must do it in the interest of the public, and that means holding the digitizers responsible to the citizenry.

It would be naive to identify the Internet with the Enlightenment. It has the potential to diffuse knowledge beyond anything imagined by Jefferson; but while it was being constructed, link by hyperlink, commercial interests did not sit idly on the sidelines. They want to control the game, to take it over, to own it. They compete among themselves, of course, but so ferociously that they kill each other off. Their struggle for survival is leading toward an oligopoly; and whoever may win, the victory could mean a defeat for the public good.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that businesses must be responsible to shareholders. I believe that authors are entitled to payment for their creative labor and that publishers deserve to make money from the value they add to the texts supplied by authors. I admire the wizardry of hardware, software, search engines, digitization, and algorithmic relevance ranking. I acknowledge the importance of copyright, although I think that Congress got it better in 1790 than in 1998.

But we, too, cannot sit on the sidelines, as if the market forces can be trusted to operate for the public good. We need to get engaged, to mix it up, and to win back the public’s rightful domain. When I say “we,” I mean we the people, we who created the Constitution and who should make the Enlightenment principles behind it inform the everyday realities of the information society. Yes, we must digitize. But more important, we must democratize. We must open access to our cultural heritage. How? By rewriting the rules of the game, by subordinating private interests to the public good, and by taking inspiration from the early republic in order to create a Digital Republic of Learning.

I’ve been following this case with interest, but the legal settlement is certainly intricate beyond the ability of this mere antiquarian to unravel. When I first heard that Google might offer out-of-print books in their entirety to academics, it sounded almost too dreamy. To extend the public domain to include many books published since the 1920s? There would be a sea-change in the way that we do scholarship. Yet even now, Google Books has significant gaps in the public domain. (You cannot access Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary except in abridged or adulterated nineteenth-century editions, for example.) And I wonder whether the proprietary settlement gives Google some claim on its scans of works in the public domain. Already ECCO (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online) sells its scans of eighteenth-century texts at an exorbitant rate (the subscription for academic libraries is nearly a million dollars per annum, last I checked). If Google has bought the rights to the subscription of its materials for a paltry $125 million, the implications of a change in their business model are frightening indeed. Like Darnton, I believe in a democratic rather than a capitalistic vision of access to information. Of course, as he points out, at present Google has no plans to change Books, and therefore shares that commitment. But how long can we count on the present? After all it’s already past.

Advertisements